SIXTY-SEVEN

F rom the day she arrived in Barranco Lajoya, Alex kept her eyes and ears open on behalf of her employer, Joseph Collins. Her assignment had been to take a good look at things and report back. What’s being done right? What might be done better? And above all, see who might be trying to push these poor indigenous people off their land.

Identify who and report back.

To that end, Alex embedded herself in the everyday life of the village, the better to catch the pace and feel of the place. The better to observe.

Father Martin installed her in a thatched hut located behind the church. Some of the wives from the village, accompanied by their daughters, had scrubbed the concrete floor of the hut with a heavy bleach and disinfectant before Alex’s arrival. As noxious as the smell was, it kept the insects at bay, though when she lay down to sleep, she could see the insects crawling above her, through the leaves and branches of the roof. There was also a small supply of citronella candles on a wooden table and a small can of insecticide.

Bedding was a thin foam mattress spread on the floor, plus a sheet and mosquito netting. There was a ring of chili powder around the sleeping area, which kept most of the crawling spiders, lice, and red ants away. In the evening, two candles lit the room, and Alex was cautioned to leave one on at night to deter the occasional small snake that might intrude. Rattlers, she was reminded, could sense the body heat of their prey and would strike in complete darkness.

The best plumbing in town was also in the back of the church, in an attached shed, but this was in a single open room where food supplies were also kept. When Alex used it, two of the women from the town, whom she quickly befriended, “stood guard” for her so that no men would walk in. The village men were too well mannered, or intimidated, to burst in on her, but accidents could happen.

Bathing was rudimentary, too. About a hundred yards through the woods there was a mountain stream which was about twenty feet wide where it ran past the village. The women of Barranco Lajoya considered it safe in terms of pollution and wildlife. They had been using it to bathe and wash laundry for many generations.

The men tended to be away during the day, so the women would go together in the late afternoon before dusk, maybe ten to fifteen at a time, usually with many children. Alex tended to go to the river with the younger women, the wives who were sometimes barely older than sixteen, but mostly in their twenties.

They would disrobe completely, leave their clothes in neat piles on the riverbank and move quickly into a meter of rushing water. They would scrub themselves with bars of a strong Mexican soap. The water came from a great elevation and was surprisingly refreshing. A strong current kept it clean.

Alex was hesitant at the procedure at first and reluctant to undress in front of the women of the village, though the venue was really no more than an outdoor version of a women’s locker room. But she quickly got used to the procedure. In a strange primal way she felt at one with God’s nature when she waded into the cool stream and then slowly submerged herself. It occurred to her that the topography here had probably not changed much in two thousand years, since the time of Christ. People had probably been bathing in this tributary for just as long. Before many days had passed, she looked forward to the daily ritual.

She had heard that sometimes soldiers came through the area and would stand on the opposite riverbank, watch the women, and shout to them. Sometimes the soldiers would even take pictures. The men of the village tolerated this. They knew better than to challenge the soldiers. Everyone in Venezuela knew better than to challenge groups of military.

Alex kept an eye out for the soldiers. She had no inclination to put on a show for them. But she did see them once. Two of the younger soldiers were taking pictures from the opposite shore while Alex and three others were bathing in knee-deep water.

Surprisingly to Alex, the women bathing made no effort to cover themselves and actually waved to the men in uniform. One blew kisses.

Later one of the women explained. “We are safer when the soldiers come by to watch us,” she said. “Because we bathe in the river, the soldiers pass by our village. If they didn’t pass by, we would be at the complete mercy of bandits.”

To bathe, the women also needed to wear rubber sandals. The thongs protected the soles of the feet from microscopic dangers that lurked on the bed of the stream. It was through the soles of the feet that parasites, some of which could be fatal, might enter the body. A woman named Inez who was always accompanied by three small children, gave Alex a pair of black rubber thongs made from an old tire.

Two weeks after Alex arrived, a medical mission from Maracaibo visited Barranco Lajoya. With the exception of Mr. Collins’s missionaries, foreign visits were a rarity in the little town perched three thousand feet above the valley floor. The scenery may have been Aspencaliber, but there were no ski lifts here, no businesses. There weren’t even toilets outside of the church. On one side of the town, the drop on the mountain was so steep that one could fall off. Sometimes children did.

The people of the town were endlessly grateful when the doctors and nurses arrived. If residents of Barranco Lajoya got sick, they usually had to hope they would get better on their own. Some didn’t even bother to do that. They had learned to live with pain and infection, and sometimes die with it.

“The worst thing that can happen to a human being is to lose hope,” Father Martin said one morning. “A lot of people here feel hopeless.”

On the first day of the visit, the missionaries turned the town’s church into a medical clinic in a matter of minutes. Two doctors from Maracaibo set up shop behind little-kid-style desks. Other missionaries set up stations to take blood pressure and test adults for diabetes. Bags of pills and medical supplies were stashed behind the altar of the church. Outside on the playground, the cluster of townspeople was organized into a line and missionaries registered every single person. They wrote down names, ages, and complaints, which ranged from hacking coughs and stomach aches to limbs rotting from blood poisoning.

What followed wasn’t textbook medicine. The doctors made diagnoses on the fly, seeing ten times the number of patients they would on a typical day in the US. The little pills that Americans took for granted made a huge difference in Barranco Lajoya. They could whip lingering infections and knock out the stomach parasites that could starve even a well-fed child.

Alex used her fluent Spanish to help counsel some patients. She saw one ten-year-old girl who had been suffering from a sore throat that made her wince every time she swallowed.

She asked how long the girl had been in pain.

The girl’s response: “ Seis anos. ” Six years.

The doctor prescribed antibiotics but told the girl’s mother she would need to take her to one of the hospitals on the distant coast to have her tonsils removed. She wasn’t sure that would happen. The medical brigade like this was like a strobe flash in the dark. The stomach parasites were going to come back, blood pressure medicine would eventually run out, lice would again infest the children. Suspected cancers would go untreated. But temporarily suffering had been lessened. At least those who brought in help from the outside had done something.

“I’d like to think that we weren’t just giving a dose of an antiparasitic but also a little dose of optimism,” Father Martin said at the end of the day. “And yet there are those who would take even that away from these people.”

As the first month passed, Alex watched as the resident missionaries went about their work, which consisted mostly of trying to establish a school, or at best literacy, and a small medical clinic. These activities took place in the church, which was close to a hundred degrees during the day.

Alex rose with each lemony dawn, sometimes watching the last of the men begin their daily trek down the mountain. She then set out to explore the region, trying to figure out what could be there that would cause someone to want to drive the missionaries away. If anything.

Some days she would hike on foot. On other days, burros were available. She would never travel alone, never travel unarmed. On her journeys, the most striking thing in Alex’s eyes was the magnificent raw beauty of the countryside, rivers and waterfalls, thick jungle, and endless unspoiled vistas. Always, she took photographs. Her digital equipment had enough memory for two thousand shots. She fired away liberally, then cleared out the clinkers in the evening.

Twice, Manuel returned to Barranco Lajoya to take her on explorations by air.

Each time, he guided her back down the mountain and drove her to a nearby landing field that could accommodate helicopters but not airplanes. From there she took off and surveyed the region by air.

On the first trip, the pilot took her all around the area to the east and northeast, all the way out to the Rio Amacura delta on the coastline and the blue Caribbean. She could see Trinidad and Tobago in the hazy distance. Then on another day, a different pilot flew her westward down over the Amazon jungle to Puerto Ayacucho, which was the capital of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas.

“The army has a huge base here,” Manuel explained. “We cannot fly too close to it or they will shoot at us. For sport, if for no other reason. They conduct a continuous campaign against drug runners from Colombia, yet some of them also take payoffs from the drug runners.”

Alex nodded. Then they continued south to one of the world’s great natural wonders, the Casiquare canal, a waterway that linked South America’s two greatest river systems, the Amazon and the Orinoco. By air for the first time, it was breathtaking, much like going over Niagara Falls and the Mississippi at the same time.

“When we return,” Alex asked, “can we fly north over Barranco Lajoya? I’d like to see the summit of our mountain.”

“We can do that,” Manuel answered.

The aircraft then guided Alex over her village by air. She took more pictures. She then had the pilot trace the route of the river until they found the places where the water came out of the ground. She could see no place where pollution could have begun, as once reported.

On foot, and on the backs of donkeys, Alex learned enough about the surrounding areas to take hikes on some days through paths in the jungle, never neglecting her sidearm, always accompanied by men with rifles from Barranco Lajoya. Her daily outfit-boots, fresh socks that she’d wash each night, hiking shorts, a T-shirt, a red bandana, and cap-became her work clothes. She clipped the compass to one of the belt loops on her shorts and it remained there.

Her “school uniform,” as she thought of it. Her arms and legs tanned within a week. Her stomach flattened even more than usual, and her legs grew stronger than ever from the rugged hiking and climbing. Her local guides showed her to clearings where she could see horizons that were hundreds of miles away on a clear day. On other days they showed her lush orchards that they had planted on their own. The guides often trekked fifty pound bags of fruit by donkey down the path and sent the produce to market. On another day, she was led past the area when the women bathed to where the stream merged with a much larger body of water. There were three dugout canoes waiting, and her guides took her on a journey upstream about ten miles by paddle. They stopped at a quarry where the men picked up about twenty pounds each of smooth flat rock, a distinctive local granite with a quartz content that, like the sand in some of the river beds, gave the rock a pink hue.

“What are those for?” Alex asked.

Both men smiled. “ Mi sobrina,” said one of them. “My niece. And some of the other girls.”

“What do they do with them?” Alex asked, intrigued.

“We’ll show you later,” the girl’s uncle said.

Then, when the boats were loaded, they allowed the current to bring them back. It took the better part of a day.

That same evening, Alex received the answer to her question about the stones. The granite substance was not just unique for its color, but also for its density and durability. When Alex examined the stones, she was amazed how hard they were. They were like little pieces of natural iron. As a result, the young girls in the village used hammers and chisels on them and created jewelry of all designs. The jewelry was then sent to markets in the cities to sell to tourists. For a pendant that took many hours to create, a girl would receive a few pennies. But it was better than nothing.

A sweet sixteen-year-old girl named Paulina, the niece of one of the boat guides, had accepted Christianity. She was a very plain girl with mocha skin and dark hair that she wore pulled back. She had delicate brown eyes and worked small miracles with the granite, making boldly carved crosses onto circular stones. Paulina’s designs were the best of any village girl. They sold well as far away as Ciudad Guyana, Alex learned.

The first time Alex saw one of the Paulina’s works, she gasped at how skilled the artistry was. It was akin to hearing a gifted child sit down and play Mozart on the piano.

In reaction, Alex’s hand subconsciously went to her neck where her father’s gold cross had been for many years.

Paulina giggled.

“Why did you do that? You’re not wearing anything at your neck,” she asked.

“I used to. But I lost it,” Alex said.

“Oh.”

Alex grinned and selected one of the girl’s pieces. It was a flat round stone, graying pink, slightly smaller than an old American fifty-cent piece, but twice as thick. The cross had been carefully cut into the center of the stone. The stone was heavy for a piece of jewelry but had a slight hole at the top where a fine strand of leather was threaded through.

Alex put it on right away.

“It will protect you,” the girl said engagingly.

“Of course it will,” Alex said. Impetuously, she hugged the child. The asking price was less than fifty cents American. Alex gave the girl the equivalent of five dollars. Then she bought two smaller ones for friends back home.

The stone crosses were, Alex reasoned, the perfect souvenirs of her stay at Barranco Lajoya. For some reason, it made her feel complete again, as if she had found something that had been missing. Even when bathing in the river, even when washing her hair in the river with the coarse Mexican soap, it was the one thing she never removed.

A fifth week passed. Then a sixth.

She thought of Robert many times during these days, his smile, his sense of humor, his kindness, his body, his warmth. She still was resentful for one aspect of her life, angry with God so to speak, over Robert’s abrupt departure from this world, without even a word of farewell. How could that have been in the plan of an almighty and forgiving God?

But she mentioned this to no one. Being so far away from her normal life, all her past experiences, allowed her to think, to put things in perspective, to turn new emotional corners.

Curiously, she also realized that she had no remorse about the men she had shot and presumably killed in Kiev while defending herself. She kept all of this locked up inside her, and went about her daily business in her remote venue, even while no answers were coming forth for Mr. Collins. She had been sent here to observe, to develop a theory about who would want these indigenous people off their land and want the missionaries gone. She had by now spent several weeks studying the area from the ground, from the air, and occasionally by water. And there were no suggestions of anything amiss.

She began to wonder if she had made this trip for nothing.

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